Radio Free Bard

Avoiding good grammar in dialogue

Posted in Writing by radiofreebard on November 10, 2008

Does anyone you know in real life use perfect grammar? If not then why would your characters?

One of the first things I realised when I started writing with a word processor was that the little green squiggly lines that indicate grammatical errors were intruding into the space between quotation marks. I felt violated. “Who are you to question my dialogue?” Then I realised that it made no distinction.

I thought nothing of it until recently I read some work by a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless, even though she’s known me since pre-school). There was something that didn’t quite sit right with me about her dialogue. It was screaming at me but I couldn’t tell from where. Then it hit me – they all had the same patterns of speech. On further inspection and after questioning the writer, I discovered that this was not any lacking on her part as a writer (much) but a function of her unwillingness to have those red and green squiggly lines intrude upon her drafts.

Stop worrying about those damn lines. For starters, I’m yet to see the main stream word processor that gets Australian grammar conventions correct. Secondly, you should be drafting on paper, it forces you to proofread and thirdly, keeping to correct grammar in dialogue is dishonest and unbelievable. Read anything by Iain M banks and you’ll see why it’s so wonderful to have realistic dialogue.

I think that the biggest reason why people are afraid to do this is that it forces them out into the great open space that is creative accountability. When you remove the rules, you loose some guidance. You are forced to bring your creative intent to the front and stand for how your characters are conversing. For some people this could also mean actually designing their characters. Wouldn’t that be horrible?

Dialogue is one of the hardest things to control in many ways. Syntactically the punctuation can become a nightmare; I’ve found myself completely re-writing dialogue just to avoid using certain punctuation traps. Semantically it can run away from the author and leave him well clear of his intended target.

The hardest part about dialogue though, is characterisation. Letting a person’s dialogue express their character without sounding stupid is hard. It comes down to use of stereotypes. People either go too far or not far enough. Stereotypes aren’t only a poor generalisation, they contain the recipe book for baking a character in the reader’s mind. This goes ten-fold for short fiction writers where words are at a premium and, especially in the case of flash-fiction, you may only have a single line in which to introduce a character and how the reader is to approach them.

Use of stereotypes in dialogue, and in description, needs to be deliberate and well planned. Over use will result in unbelievable characters and under use will just result in same-same characters with little soul. Only the soulless use perfect grammar in every day speech and therefore, dialogue.

Only the unpublished use it in anything else.

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4 Responses

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  1. Tempyra said, on November 10, 2008 at 8:50 am

    I have noticed quite a difference in the way I speak and the way I write and so, I’d expect my characters to do the same (e.g if a character was writing a letter their language would be more likely to be correct than when speaking). Write grammatically and speak naturally, I guess.

    What I find hard (harder than letting characters speak naturally) is giving people little idiosyncrasies and colloquialisms in a way that distinguishes them from other characters.

  2. radiofreebard said, on November 10, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    As much as I feel I’ve come a long way in this area, there’s always further to go. Getting those little idiosyncracies right is one of those areas in which I gave a lot to learn.

    I think it’s been a while since I’ve written something where a character was writing something. I should try it out.

  3. thepomegranateblog said, on November 10, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Good rant and I agree completely. It’s un-natural to speak as one writes… unless of course you are the Queen of England. I can be rather polished when it’s called for but it all depends on the situation and who you are talking to… when you’re with your friends/ on the phone/ MSN etc you use more slang and care less then say when ur mingling at afterwork drinks. Can’t u turn the spell check/ grammar check off?

  4. radiofreebard said, on November 11, 2008 at 12:59 am

    I’m not sure, I’ve never tried. I try to rely on the check as little as possible because it’s just not reliable enough. In a recent interview Terry Pratchett admitted that he needed to be knee deep in dementia before he used a spell checker.


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